A downtown Three Rivers storefront has added shelves of dry goods, pantry essentials, and refrigerated and frozen foods to its selection. World Fare, a volunteer-run nonprofit store that has made its home on Main Street for 17 years, mainly carried fair trade home goods, décor, jewelry, and gifts until recently.
World Fare recently expanded its inventory with a selection of environmentally friendly personal care and home cleaning items to fill the space left when Love Your Mother, the earth-friendly goods store next door, closed in 2016.
“For a while, we’ve been exploring what it might look like to expand our mission beyond fair trade to include other food items [beyond coffee and chocolate] that still connected with our store’s values—environmental and worker justice, local economics, supporting neighbors near and far by supporting their work,” Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma, who is leading the project and coordinating volunteer efforts, said.
Fulfilling a long-held desire to supply healthy, natural, and organic food in the downtown block, a small team of volunteers has worked diligently to bring this idea into reality. The project included reorganization of the store layout and partial renovation of the basement.
“Groceries are a major sector of regular consumables, and it’s exciting to me to be able to support a small, local, downtown business with regular purchases,” Margaret Wenger said. Wenger is assisting with inventory management and laying the groundwork for a Buyer’s Club. Another member of the team, Jean Thompson, is working with data processing and inventory management.
Vander Giessen-Reitsma said, “Local surveys conducted by the (Three Rivers) Downtown Development Authority/Main Street have shown a desire for a specialty food store downtown and we hope that adding these products into the mix will continue to make our downtown a more attractive place for residents who live in downtown apartments and in the walkable neighborhoods surrounding downtown.” Wenger added that instead of driving to Kalamazoo or Goshen to find organic and natural products, customers can reduce travel time and spend their dollars locally.
When COVID-19 hit, the store closed its doors. But even after it reopened for limited hours, Vander Giessen-Reitsma said, “It quickly became apparent that our sales of household items, handcrafts, and gifts weren’t going to be enough to keep the store going—our sales were down over 30% for a while last year. That’s when the leadership team decided to start the expansion project. While we’ve been considering this for a while, COVID really pushed us forward as we tried to keep the store solvent.”
Funds for the expansion came from a loan through the DDA/Main Street, which in turn came from working with the US Department of Agriculture funding structure. The terms of the $8,000 loan include a 1% interest rate, to be repaid in no more than five years after a six-month deferral period. This loan covered the costs of equipment such as refrigerators, freezers, and commercial sinks, as well as basement renovation.
The store also received funding through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program from the Small Business Administration (SBA) as part of last year’s CARES Act, “which has helped with some of the initial inventory purchases [from United Natural Foods, Inc.] for the grocery expansion,” said Vander Giessen-Reitsma. Sales income from the 2020 Christmas season filled in the rest of the funding, and with ongoing sales, the store hopes to retire both loans as soon as possible.
TRDDA Executive Director Tricia Meyer said, “I was very pleased to see the DDA/Main Street Board and Business Retention Committee work closely with the USDA to modify our current grant guidelines to be supportive of businesses during the onset of COVID. Many businesses took the initiative and looked at pivoting their business model to be supportive of the challenging times that they were facing, and this loan was a way for the program to be supportive of that. Low-interest loans are still available, so please reach out to [email protected] for more information.”
While the team is committed to “choosing products that are better for the earth and the people who produce them,” it acknowledges that such products often come with a higher price tag. “We’re doing our best to create programs that will make shopping at World Fare for food as economical as possible while still supporting a more just food system,” Vander Giessen-Reitsma said. In process is an application to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to accept SNAP payment. Anyone using SNAP benefits can also waive the yearly fee to the new Buyer’s Club, soon to be launched to the public.
Once the program is launched, for a fee of $150 per year, Buyer’s Club members will receive 15% off purchases of any items in the store, as well as the option to place special orders through UNFI at 15% above wholesale price. Also in the works is a Buyer’s Club for local restaurants to purchase ingredients through World Fare.
One of the hopes of the World Fare Leadership Team is to improve the sustainability of the store, eventually creating enough cash flow to hire a part- or full-time manager to oversee the daily workings. As the store is currently completely powered by volunteers, this avenue would create a paying job, and relieve some of the duties of long-time volunteers.
A future phase of the project includes an online ordering system, which will allow for curbside pickup or local delivery. For now, Wenger and the rest of the team look forward to seeing the new grocery line attract customers to the store. “It’s very exciting to see food products start to fill up the shelves and imagine that it will be easy for people to do all (or most) of their grocery shopping downtown.”
World Fare is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 12-6 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. A face mask is required to shop.
Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers at World Fare and with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.